John Steigerwald: Miracles not unheard of in Penguins-Islanders history
Do you believe in miracles?
If the Pittsburgh Penguins win the next three games against the New York Islanders and are leading in Game 7 with 10 seconds to go, whoever is calling the game shouldn’t feel guilty about stealing Al Michaels’ line from 1980. Coming back to win this series may not equal what the U.S. Olympic hockey team did to the Soviets on their way to winning a Gold Medal because it’s hard to imagine any team pulling off a greater upset, but it’s definitely going to take what would qualify as a miracle.
Teams just don’t come back from being down three games to none, and there have been plenty of good teams that have found themselves in that position.
One hundred and ninety NHL teams have been where the Penguins are right now. Four of them came back to win the series. The last one to do it was the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, and they went on to win the Stanley Cup championship.
If you’re a Penguins fan and you’re looking for something to hang your hat on going into Game 4, there’s this: The Penguins and the Islanders have a history of miracles and near-miracles going back to 1975.
The bad news is that the Islanders have won all three series that might qualify.
The good news for the Penguins might be that it’s finally time for them to return the favor from 44 years ago. They outscored the Islanders, 14-6, and went up three games to none in the 1975 quarterfinals.
You know how many goals they scored in the last four games?
Four. They lost Game 7, 1-0.
That’s a miraculous turnaround. Not to mention a historic collapse.
The chances of the Penguins holding this Islanders team to four goals in the last four games aren’t good.
The chances of the Penguins scoring more than four goals if they played this Islanders team four more times aren’t much better.
David Volek’s Game 7 overtime goal that beat a 1993 Penguins team, which finished with 119 points and had four players with 100 points or more, is getting farther back in the rear-view mirror. But any Penguins fan old enough to remember it still feels the pain.
The strangest playoff series between these two franchises happened in 1982, and that was only a near-miracle.
Imagine Mario Lemieux making an announcement before Game 4 on Tuesday that he was so embarrassed by the Penguins lack of scoring and the domination by the Islanders that he wouldn’t be going to the game, and the fans could get a refund if they had bought tickets.
That’s what happened in 1982.
The owner was Ed DeBartolo, and the Penguins just had been outscored 15-3 at Nassau Coliseum in New York over the first two games of a five-game series. The Islanders were trying to win their third Cup in a row.
Only about 200 people took DeBartolo up on the offer, and the fans who showed up were standing and screaming before the National Anthem started.
The Penguins won Game 3 on an overtime goal by Rick Kehoe. They won Game 4 and headed back to Long Island to play Game 5 in the building that had been nicknamed Fort Never Lose. The Islanders had won 23 of their last 25 there.
The Penguins were up 3-1 in the third period before Brian Trottier set the Islanders up for a power-play goal by taking a spectacular dive. With the score 3-2 and 2 minutes, 30 seconds left, the puck took a bad bounce over Penguins defenseman Randy Carlyle’s stick and came directly to John Tonelli, who sent the game into overtime.
That turned out to be a only a near-miracle when Tonelli scored the winner at 6:19.
The Penguins locker room after that game is still the most funereal I’ve ever been in, and I was in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ room after Sid Bream scored to beat them in 1992.
So, maybe the Penguins are due a miracle. They need one.
And maybe you can hang your hat on the notion that the Penguins winning four straight should kind of be expected, based on what’s happened with these two teams in the postseason.
John Steigerwald is a freelance writer.